Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Life & Wars of Gen Curtis LeMay

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

AFA Members, Congressional Staffers, Civic Leaders, and DOCA members, this past weekend I read a great book – one that anyone who cares about airpower should consider. The book is entitled: LEMAY – The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay. It is written by Warren Kozak, published in 2009, and came to me via a staff member from a former Chairman of the Board of AFA. Simply put – the book destroyed all the preconceived notions I had about General LeMay – most of which were formed by his run for Vice President, the movie Dr. Strangelove, and his often quoted statement of "bombing the North Vietnamese back to the stone age."

Here is a sampling of what I found in the book:

"It should be remembered that generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant fought seventeen battles in each of their careers. LeMay fought one almost every day for three years. And unlike any other general in modern times, he did not send his men out on perilous missions, he led them. On the most dangerous missions, LeMay insisted on flying the lead aircraft in the formation himself, in the first plane the enemy would target. No other general in WWII did this."

The Army Air Corps chose the B-18 over the B-17 in the 1935 heavy bomber competition. The country was in the midst of the great depression and leaders were looking for the 75% solution [my words] when it came to recapitalizing the Army Air Corps. However, this compromised approach yielded an aircraft that lacked both the payload capacity and range to effectively engage in most combat scenarios—including those anticipated in Europe and the Pacific. Fortunately, Congress had the wisdom to add money for the B-17 – to keep both the bomber … and the Boeing Company alive for what was to come. By the end of the war 12,000 B-17s had been constructed, with nearly half of these lost in combat.

" … the start of the military buildup in the fall of 1941 hardly relieved LeMay's anxiety. The US was starting from nothing. It was impossible, he thought to correct twenty years of neglect in just six months or even a year, and he was right."

" The entire American effort managed just over seventy sorties in August of 1942, compared to … more than 20,000 [sorties] a month later in the war."

"He had no tolerance whatsoever for stupidity, incompetence, or laziness, and he was brutal when he witnessed these cardinal vices. … his consistent refrain was: "whoever didn't cut it or didn't like it here could always go to the infantry."

"Undergirding all Japanese strategy was a dismissive view that Americans [were] products of liberalism and individualism and incapable of fighting a protracted war."

"In any given month in the first half of 1945, upwards of 250,000 Asians were dying at the hands of the Japanese – a quarter of a million lives every thirty days."

"All told, the Air Force dropped over 12,000 mines and brought Japan's shipping down to one-tenth of what it had been before the mining."

LeMay in a speech in 1945: "It is beyond my powers of description to picture to you the difference between the bomb-blackened ruins and the desolation of our enemy's cities and the peaceful Ohio cities and landscape, untouched and unmarred by war. I can only say to you, if you love America, do everything you can do to make sure that what happened to Germany and Japan will never happen to our country. Our preparedness for war should be the measure of our desire for peace. The last war was started by airpower and finished by [airpower]. America, if attacked must be able to take the initiative immediately. It must attack in turn."

LeMay (in 1965): "[The enemy asked for it and they got it.] In reverse fashion, if we keep listening to the gospel of apology and equivocation which all too many politicians and savants are preaching today in the US, we will be asking for the same thing. And in time may achieve it."

"'Whatever you do, somebody's going to criticize you. Forget criticism,' was the advice he gave to Air Force personnel."

A list of LeMay's accomplishments is staggering.

He developed heavy bombing tactics in the European Theater of Operations … replacing ineffective and haphazard methods with disciplined combat formations that maximized the bombers' ability to defend themselves against enemy fighters and increase bombing accuracy over the target.
He developed the tactics that transformed B-29 operations in the Pacific from an utter failure into an overwhelming success by adopting unorthodox tactics and low altitude bombing runs.
He created the RAND Corporation
He started the ICBM program
He was the Commander of the Air Force in Europe at the start of the Berlin Air Lift
He built the Strategic Air Command into a force second to none
Despite his legendary differences with SECDEF McNamara (who earlier served under him as a Lt Col), the latter said about him: "Without question, Curtis LeMay was the finest combat commander the US has ever produced."

On balance, this book is important for many reasons. Gen LeMay stood up against group-think. He understood airpower and the human dimension of war. He stood by his principles, shunned popularity, argued for a strong deterrent. And … he was right. We owe him a ton. The legacy of his efforts still grace our Air Force today in Minutemen missiles, B-52 bombers, and KC-135 tankers.

For your consideration,


Michael M. Dunn


Unknown said...

This truly is a great book and sets the recrod straight. In early 2009, NPR did an inteview with the author. Get this book!

Rich Taylor said...

I was privileged to serve in the Pentagon as an Air Force junior captain when General LeMay was USAF Chief of Staff. On the day General LeMay attended his last JCS "pre-brief" by Air Force JCS action officers, as he returned to his office he found the hallways lined with hundreds of Air Force military and civilian personnel, all applauding the General as he passed. His obvious emotion at the sight and sound of those people who admired and respected the General so much because of his love and dedication to the country he served is memorable to me to this day.

Richard I. Taylor, Lt. Col, USAF, Ret.

AcftFliehr said...

A great book for the Airmen out there!

I was in SAC as a B-52 Crew Chief during the height of the Cold War and I have to this date never been involved with anything run so perfectly than that organization.

It amazes me the older I get on how in the heck did SAC run so well, well now I see why!

A very controversial individual indeed, but if you are in a fight for your countries life you need people like him running things, and the elites in politkal power during the war years knew that!

His life after the military was disappointing, but not surprisingly so sad to say....

Gerry Hounchell said...

Just ordered the book Lemay--The Life and Wars of General Curtis L. LeMay, should arrive in about 3/5 days. In the 1960's, my wife worked for General Dale O. Smith, head of Disarmament in the Pentagon. One day at work, cigar chewing LeMay practically ran her over in the hallway as he bulled ahead in his hard-charging, take no prisoners mode. Whether he was on the way to an important Cold War meeting or just going to the bathroom, General LeMay was not a man to allow anyone or anything impede his mission. With respect to WWII and the Cold War, I have always felt he was the right man at the right time.
Gerry Hounchell

Anonymous said...

As a lieutenant, flying out of Hickam, LeMay set the stage for the future of Air Navigation in the USAF. The 31 step celestial pre-computation form that navigators used until the sextants were removed from USAF aircraft was his personal creation. During the Heyday of SAC, he required all B-47 pilots to be navigators (co-pilots shot handheld sextant observations and pilots visually assisted the navigator with the run-in to the target). There was a special course for them at James Connally AFB in Waco, TX., among other bases, and each graduating pilot received navigator wings, which they never wore. My father's wings from 1957 sat in his dresser until I became a navigator and my soon-to-be wife pinned them on me at my 1975 graduation ceremony. I, in turn, passed them on to my C-130 navigator son, who at his graduation pinned on his grandfather's wings, which his mother pinned on his father the first time they were worn in 1975. Curtis LeMay was the father of modern Air Navigation.

Randy Durham, Lt Col, USAF (Ret)

WhiteCloud said...

You know thats the kind of stories I like how you start off with nothing and build an air force,navy,or army to become something to remember than some fancy art show of some guys and gals weaving baskets!

I remember stories of famous Aviators and the plains they flew. So to all you Airmen and a like I would like to remember you all as " Those Fantastic Young Men and their Flying Machines ! "

robert said...

Not so! I flew as lead bombardier in the spring of 1944 over Munich with Gen Robert Travis at the controls. He was commander of the First Air Division. We were the 379th squadron of the 524th Bomb Group, Col. Moe Preston, Commander.
Robert Marcott
Lt.Col, Retired

D Hicks said...

Sounds like a great book. Like many I have only heard of the "media" side of General LeMay. It would be good to get more insight into the man.

Unknown said...

A leader you'll never forget. I remember his admonition to our nuclear bomb loaders, "If you ever drop one (a monstrous Mark 36) while loading, plan to be under it.".

Neil McGuinness
Munitions Maint Offcier
SAC 10th Aviation Depot Squadron

Unknown said...

[As shared in separate e-mail with Mike Dunn @ AFA HQ] = My two favorite vignettes re: General LeMay = (#1) As a reserves second lieutenant, he was lead navigator on General Billy Mitchell's "proof of principle" successful sinking of "UN-sinkable" US Navy decommis- sioned battleships [reference: DeWitt S. Copp book "A Few Great Captains"]; and (#2) On retire- ment, fellow USAF officers already retired in San Antonio, TX arranged with a local developer to present General & Mrs. LeMay with their own retirement home -- cost to the LeMays == one dollar (US)!